Interview - CBS This Morning
Manhattan, New York, December 8, 1995
Speakers: Mark McEwen, Joni Mitchell, Paula Zahn, Harry Smith
See the video here
Mark: Now for a real treat. Joni Mitchell is one of a kind, a singer who bares her soul through her art. Her latest CD is "Turbulent Indigo." And recently Harry, Paula and I spent some time with this woman whose music is pure magic.
Joni Mitchell first looked at life from her family's home in Saskatoon, Canada. An only child who was diagnosed with polio, she sought refuge in her words and music. Her unique abilities were apparent early on. Her high school yearbook notes Joni's unequalled artistic talent. Since the mid-'60s, she's recorded 17 albums of her own tunes; songs that dare to reveal her most intimate thoughts and give voice to her most personal feelings. As a woman in a traditionally male industry at a time when British bands rocked the charts, a lesser talent might have been silenced. But Mitchell endured and has made a lasting impression on her art. Joni's fans include many of today's most popular songwriters; including Peter Gabriel, Prince, Madonna and Melissa Etheridge among her greatest admirers.
[Video clips: Melissa Etheridge, Peter Gabriel]
Melissa: She is the greatest female songwriter.
Peter: She has continuously and courageously experimented, putting substance before style, passion before packaging, and all the time creating wonderful pictures with her songs.
Mark: Folk, pop, blues, jazz - Joni's tackled them all with passion and today she continues to write and record songs that make a difference. Ladies and gentlemen: Joni Mitchell. [Audience applause.] Well, that's the show; good-bye. (No.) Hello Joni.
Joni: Good morning.
Mark: Good to see you again.
Joni: It's good to see you again.
Mark: Well, you see the reaction that you get from your fans, and you have from the very beginning. What I'd like to know is, when you began to put your thoughts and your innermost feelings down on paper and with guitar, where did you think it would go? What made you want to do what you do with that instrument and with the instrument, your voice?
Joni: OK, it's two departments, isn't it? - the music and the poetry. Let's see. Well, as a child, I think the moment of inspiration came at a Kirk Douglas movie called "The Story of Three Loves," which had as its theme song a piece by Rachmaninoff, and this melody just thrilled me. That was before albums; and there was a department store in the town that had listening booths and you could go in and take out a 78 and go into a glass booth and listen to it. And I used to go down and listen to that beautiful melody. After that, I dreamed that I could play the piano beautifully - and drive a car - those were my two recurring dreams.
So I took piano lessons briefly, but the piano teacher didn't understand that I wanted to compose. She said, "Oh, why would you want to play by ear when you can have the masters under your fingertips?" And she rapped my knuckles with a ruler, which was the way they taught in those days, but I didn't know that. I took it personally. So she kind of bruised my desire to play the piano beautifully, until I was in my 20s - actually, until I began to record - I picked the piano up again. So there was an early desire to change chromatic colors.
As far as the poetry went, I never liked poetry but I wrote it anyway. At a certain point I realized that you could put the two together. As for playing the guitar, I picked that up kind of to sing rather rowdy songs at wiener roasts, which was the source of our entertainment as teenagers in Saskatchewan. You know: grab some beer, go out in the bush and sit around and sing these songs. So I didn't really have any ambition. At that time and where I come from, it didn't seem even like a remote possibility. It wasn't a possible dream. Kids now, you hear them interviewed and they say, "Oh, I always knew as a small child I was going to be on television." Well, we didn't have television when I was a small child, so...
Paula: I guess the one reason why your songs talk to so many of us is that you deal with your own emotions in such an honest way. You sing about things a lot of us can't even talk about. In the process of writing these songs, does it sometimes become so invasive that it's difficult for you to face your own emotions or are you completely free?
Joni: Well, it depends. I mean, sometimes - I guess I am in this sense a true artist, in that I feel it's better to sacrifice myself to the song than someone else. I can forgive myself for revealing myself; whereas, sometimes, very simple portraits that I don't think are - like David Geffen had a hard time with "Free Man in Paris" for a long time. He was offended by it initially and yet it doesn't reveal anything unattractive about him.
Harry: You should explain, for people who don't understand, what that lyric line meant and why.
Joni: "Free Man in Paris"?
Joni: Well, David and I went to the Cannes Film Festival - David Geffen, Geffen Records. We have a long history of relationship but he began as my agent. And then when he set up his own record company, the first one being Asylum Records, we went to the Cannes Film Festival one time. It was his first time in Paris. After we returned - David and I were roommates at that time - I can remember him lamenting, "Oh, I want to go back to Paris, I want to go back to Paris," and he was kind of drowning in business responsibility. That's how I recall it. The song contains a lot of feelings in his own words at that time. You know, I kind of scribed them. And initially he didn't really want to be - not that I put his name on it; everybody knows it now because the press always ferrets these things out, but -
Paula: Because you were dealing with sexuality.
Joni: Was it? Was there sexuality in it? I don't know, it just seems to me like a longing to be back on the Champs Élysée. It became a symbol, I think, of freedom as opposed to business responsibility. So it's easier to do a portrait of myself and my own foibles - which also helps to prevent too much worship. I'm not comfortable with being too pedestalled. I like my freedom in the street. I like to walk around unchaperoned, so to speak, and feel that I can handle that. And, blessedly, I never had that much fame and I came after the screaming eras.
Harry: There are a lot of screamers here today, though.
Paula: We're going to take a short break here and we'll be back with more with Joni Mitchell.
And we are delighted to be spending some time with Joni Mitchell. Welcome back. You have so many fans here. I think we can all remember exactly where we were when we heard most of your songs the first time. This gentleman, though, has lost track, how many years he has been enjoying your music - 23, 24, 25?
Audience: Somewhere around there, and I've been waiting all those 20-23 years to ask you this one question.
Audience: Will you marry me?
Mark: You'll have to wrestle three out of five falls and I'm married and I'll wrestle you for Joni because I want her to marry me.
Paula: She'll sing you an answer later on.
Audience: Joni, with the nearly 20 albums that you've done, you've never actually compiled a greatest hits collection. But for a while we've been hearing about this box set. Is there any news on that?
Joni: Well, the greatest hits, I declined on putting that together because I don't want to kill my catalogue. So I've been fighting the companies to put it off. And, in fact, I haven't had that many hits. So I haven't had that much incentive. But now, there's a lot of songs that I think could have been airplay but the companies for one reason or another didn't gear up for them. I mean I actually could make one at this point. The box set is quite a project. It's a retrospective. And I will do that in the future, but I don't have the time right now. I'm on to the next album first.
Mark: How much pressure did you have over the years to come up with hits? - because it is a hit-driven industry - and how much did you have to fight that?
Joni: I was in a unique kind of circumstance in that I didn't have a producer, even, for many records. I did a couple of things - I did one cut with a producer and it was such a dreadful experience, I thought, "Oh no, it's another knuckle-rapper. If I have to do this, it's going to kill my love of music again." I have a painter's vanity; it's like, you wouldn't have somebody putting a stroke on your canvas, so why would you have somebody putting a stroke on your music? I mean you do have collaborators and you cut them a certain amount of expressive slack and that's plenty good enough. Well, anyway, without a producer, which is sometimes the go-between in the company - and no way even are an artist's representation in the studio - I was pretty much left to my own devices. As for the release of singles, that's the one area where I have no say. So they'd release one and nothing much would generally happen. I'm not a large record seller so they didn't put a lot of money behind promoting it, either. And as John Lennon said to me one time, "Oh, put some fiddles on it. You want a hit, don't you? Why do you let other people have your hits for you?" But other people seem to have better luck with my songs, in terms of the Top Ten, than I do.
Mark: "Both Sides Now" has been recorded, I think, 300-and-change times.
Harry: We've got to take a break. We'll be back right after this.
Mark: All right. Now, let's get back to Harry Smith and more of our recent visit with Joni Mitchell.
Harry: She has written and recorded songs that have been more than just hits. A Joni Mitchell song says something and means something. And Joni Mitchell is here to sing for us.
[Performance: "Just Like This Train"]
Paula: And Joni Mitchell is back with us. I want you to see what a diehard fan is all about here. Oh, look at that.
Audience: The '79 "Miles of Aisles" tour. I still have it. I can't fit in it anymore, but...
Paula: And a question down here.
Audience: When you're at home, what's your favorite food to prepare for yourself?
Joni: Oh, let's see.
Audience: Your music speaks for itself.
Joni: Well, I make a concoction that I call "Apple Oink." And what it is, it's pork chops, but I poach them in cran-apple juice with onions and garlic and sliced apples, so that it comes down to kind of applesauce. I poach it under a lid. Then I take the lid off and let it caramelize the last few seconds, but you have to watch it so it doesn't burn. That's pretty good. "Apple Oink."
Audience: Everybody I know, no matter how old they get, have times when they have to listen to your albums. What do you do when you want to listen to a Joni Mitchell song? Do you write a new one? Do you listen to your music?
Harry: Good question.
Joni: Oh, well, I don't look back too much. I'm going to have to, because of the box set. I have all my tapes in my car and it looks like that's all I listen to, but they've been there a long time because I haven't been able to - it's like "This Is Your Life" - I have to go over this whole bulk of material. Yeah, I go forward. Usually, the song that interests me the most is what I'm trying to describe that just happened.
Audience: Your songs are everybody's life, so that's what is --
Harry: We all had the discussion a minute or two ago that we feel like, at some point in all of our lives, you have saved our lives.
Mark: Joni, one thing that I want to mention. The people who came out when you did, musically - Bob Dylan, Crosby, Graham Nash, you - not only do you have music that says something, but your heart seems to be always in the right place when it comes to helping others, being benevolent. Do you see that benevolence in other artists today?
Joni: Well, to tell you the truth, you know you absorb most of your music when you're young. That's when you're the most keen on it and you're the most open to it. And recently I haven't been listening to much. There's music everywhere you go now. If you want to hear some music, roll down your window in L.A. in traffic - what this guy's listening to - I mean it's in stores, it's everywhere. So I've gone through a period in the last year of spending my evenings in silence, which has created the music that I'm now making. It's interesting what happened by not listening to music. There's a lot of '40s influences coming into it, like in the melodies and in the chord progressions. So it has been a time not really to absorb that much of what is new. So I can't speak in an informed way about what's happening these days.
Paula: Got another question for you over here.
Audience: Hi. I want to know what you think of the performance artist John Kelly's use of your work; also, in addition to your enormous cultural place in our lives, what it feels like to officially have been brought into the gay pantheon of divas.
Joni: I've seen pictures of him. I meant to go see his performance in Los Angeles and things conspired. So I have not been an eyewitness to it but I think it's fun.
Audience: He's great.
Joni: Yeah. Didn't he have Georgia O'Keefe as his piano player at the L.A. thing? I think so.
Audience: He does you in drag sometimes. Other times he does your work totally straight and takes you quite seriously. It's very beautiful.
Joni: Some of the lyrics are narrative form so they're not gender-oriented. It would take very little, maybe one word, to change it anyway. So I wondered. I think that's great.
Harry: We want to hear you play some more in just a minute, all right?
[Performance: "Face Lift"]
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